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August 6, 2012
Owyhee River

Owyhee River

Sometimes I feel like the best trips have to start with a hiccup. Nothing sours a trip faster than everything starting off perfect. I’m not exactly superstitious, but I really don’t want my first cast of the morning to catch a fish, because experience has taught me that if you catch a fish on your first cast, it will probably be your last. Of course this is truer with fish like steelhead, Atlantic salmon, and musky, where if they truly are a fish of a thousand casts, you’ve got a lot of casting ahead of you if you catch one on your first cast.

Following this line of reasoning, if I go on a road trip to fish, I’m OK with making a wrong turn here or there, or in this case taking the slowest, windiest, twistiest route all-together; and that’s how we find ourselves on highway 26 at 1:00 AM. I think this road would be a lot of fun in a Porsche, Ferrari, or Maserati, it’s not nearly as fun in a Ford F-350 with a camper. This is laborious driving, especially in the dark where you can’t see where the next corner is. If we’d taken the fastest route, we’d be there by now; instead we are still winding our way through canyons and about two hours away.

We pull into Nyssa and the clock reads 1:30. In my mind, Nyssa was right next to the Owyhee; in my mind the road signs giving mileage to Nyssa were giving me mileage to our final destination. Reality is, Nyssa is an hour and a half or more from the Owyhee. Few things are more depressing than realizing you are going to be awake for two more hours when every fiber in your being craves sleep. 3:00 AM and I pull the truck into a dirt road off the main road paralleling the river, we stumble around in the drunkenness of sleep depravity and catch a few winks before the alarm goes off at 6:00 AM. There are fish rising lazily in the slow pool below the truck, and I get the feeling that this is going to be a very, very good trip.

If you live in Oregon, the Owyhee is in the middle of nowhere, if you live in Boise, the Owyhee is practically your home river. We knew this going in, and it turned out to be completely true; I would say Idaho license plates held a 5 to 1 advantage over Oregon plates. The Owyhee is a small river, when we fished it was at its higher flows of about 250 cubic feet per second (CFS), compare that to my home river, The Deschutes, which typically runs from 3800 to 6500 CFS. In the fall and winter when irrigation is shut off the river flows at about 50 CFS, I haven’t seen the river at this flow, but I can only imagine it makes the fishing water easier to find. The river runs slightly off color, although the fish certainly don’t seem to mind, this means you have to read the water by reading currents, it also means the fish are not overly skittish.

March is famous for its Skwala hatch, we fished in the middle of April, and while I wouldn’t mind taking part in that hatch, I will trade fewer bugs for fewer people any day of the week. We happened to catch an unseasonably warm streak of weather and had 90 degree blue bird days only occasionally interrupted by brief but violent thunderstorms. 90 degree weather in April isn’t exactly the recipe for epic BWO hatches, so we mostly settled for nymphing and stripping streamers away from the bank. While we didn’t get the surface action the Owyhee is known for, the fishing certainly didn’t disappoint. I don’t know the total numbers of fish caught, but it was a lot, and the action was consistent each day.  It is rare to go into a fishing trip with astronomical expectations, and then have those expectations met; the Owyhee met and maybe even exceeded our expectations.

We started off nymphing for the most part, being a guide I have a lot of confidence that nymphing can tell me what type of water the fish are in. A lot of experimentation on day one, and only two stops turning up fishless, and we had a game plan for the rest of our trip. The fish seemed to be holding below riffles in the slightly deeper and slower water, throw in big boulders or woody structure, and you had a recipe for a lot of fish. Once we figured out the type of water the fish were in, I don’t think we had another fishless stop for the rest of the trip. Having only caught a handful of browns leading up to the trip, my knowledge of their holding lies and habits was limited to what I had read. They certainly seemed to be more oriented to slower water and structure than their rainbow cousins. Their predacious nature was a welcome reality, something you read about, but until you actually experience it, the idea is just that: an idea. Fishing streamers was very effective.

Fishing streamers proved to be an exciting and rewarding way to fish. The strikes were often both vicious and visual, which in my mind made streamer fishing more visceral and exciting than dry fly fishing. Once we got the hang of it, every undercut bank and shadowy spot seemed to hold a fish willing to chase down some meat for lunch. In a lot of ways it reminded me of bass fishing, but holding a twenty plus inch brown evokes a different feeling of accomplishment than holding a bass…not fair to the bass, but true none the less.

As for the size of fish, my younger brother Caleb and my dad Jeff both caught the biggest trout of their lives, and in three and a half days I landed twelve fish over twenty inches. Several fish were caught that flirted with twenty four inches, but I don’t think any actually broke the two foot mark.

It is a pretty incredible experience when a fishing trip, or any trip for that matter, wildly exceeds your expectations, and the Owyhee did that for us. I can’t wait for my next trip to the Owyhee, but I think I’m going to have to be sure to make a wrong turn or two on the way there just to be safe.


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